Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thoughts On Pan's Labyrinth

I didn't get it.



There are two stories going on here: the story of Ofelia who is given three tasks by a mystical faun in order to prove her worth as a princess (um, what?), and the story of the guerrillas versus the soldiers which involves a cast of characters, betrayal, and intrigue, resulting in lots of people getting killed off.
As far as the story is concerned, I didn't really get how this was supposed to work. The main problem of the story is that the girl doesn't know if she is a princess and must do 3 tasks to prove it?
Anyway, what I did like was the parts of the movie where the fantasy world interacted with the real world and had consequences that impacted the plot and the characters. These would be the parts where Ofelia ruins her dress, the mandrake root has a weird, allegorical impact on the baby, and the final sequence of the movie where you don't know what's going to happen.
However, despite whatever qualms I had about it, I thought the movie really picked up during the second half, and had some great scenes, such as the one with the baby-eating-feast-man. It was very reminiscent of the Mummy-Stare-Freaks in Zelda, or entering an unknown dungeon in Oblivion.
In the end though, the movie completed on an unusual note, making me feel like I missed something or just didn't "get it." It would appear that the movie would be good to those movie viewers who could decipher some obviously hidden meaning, putting all the scenes and actions into perspective, but I find it hard to be enjoyable since I don't understand what all the undertones mean (though they appear to obviously be religious-based).
I watched Spirited Away, and I knew there had to be some hidden meaning, but I didn't have any clue what it meant. Did I still enjoy it? Yes.
In Pan's Labyrinth, I felt as if I had to get the hidden meaning for the movie to actually be enjoyable. At least that's my experience.

Worth Watching? Yes, to draw your own conclusions about it.

And seriously, how many times is the director/cinematographer going to do scene transitions by panning the camera over the giant black tree/post/pillar/rock/wall to lead us into the next scene?

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Sunday, July 27, 2008


A while ago I made a game for a competition entitled OROW (One Room One Week) on the AGS Forums. The game was an adaptation of a short story I wrote called Chatroom. The final-ish, polished version of the game has finally been released to the national interweb.

Go play it again HERE!

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Resistance: Fall of Man

Resistance mounts itself upon three distinct already existing first-person-shooters. Those would be Halo, Half-Life 2, and Call of Duty. In terms of gameplay, Resistance is fast, arcadey, has plenty of vehicle sections, and is carried out in the same manner as Halo. In terms of story, you have an alien invasion, desecrated cities, humans being turned into aliens; zombie creatures, and all that good Half-Life 2 stuff. And lastly, in terms of atmosphere and world, you're ravaging the broken streets of Europe with your fellow comrades in arms, so it's pretty close to playing Call of Duty over again.

Since Resistance seems to borrow so heavily from other First-Person-Shooters, it's hard to find any one unique element in it that shines above the crowd and makes it a game truly worth playing. The story is somewhat interesting, but I felt that it could have been better executed in a style similar to Half-Life, relying more on mystery, player discovery and first-hand experience, than force-feeding information through cut-scenes. The story in Resistance almost ran in a similar style to Call of Duty, where you seemed to be part of a huge war, and not of some sort of narrative. This felt fine in Call of Duty, but since the world in Resistance was unknown to us, it felt to me that it should have been explored a bit more.
As far as the gameplay is concerned, it is fun in its own right, but there is nothing overly great about it. The guns are somewhat unique and well-designed. The enemy AI is pretty much limited to RUSH TEH HUMANS or CAMP BEHIND BOX n' PEAK OUT OVER AND OVER. However, one odd thing about the combat is that avoiding enemy fire seems to be exclusively designated to your ability to strafe and has little to do with how much cover you currently have. This is odd because you can peak out of a box only to have your head blown off by surprisingly accurate enemy laser blasts unless you happen to strafe at the correct moment.
Moving on, the screenplay was somewhat interesting, but seemed to have no real focus or goal to it, throwing me from level to level with no sense of urgency, progress, or future outcome. There were some exciting sequences, but nothing close to the level achieved in Halo, Half-Life, or Call of Duty. Also, many of the more thrilling moments in the game were designated for cut-scenes, which I thought would have had more impact if they were played out instead of watched. Lastly, the screenplay ends with some kind of nuclear reactor showdown, which seems to be the ending level for about 50% of all shooters.

To me, a successful first-person shooter should combine an interesting world, with a strong narrative, have unique and fun gameplay mechanics, and use those in exciting sequences. Resistance does a fairly adequate job in all departments, but does not do anything extremely well to make it worth playing, in my opinion.



Thursday, July 17, 2008

Theme Hospital: A Retrospective

I was just running through Theme Hospital again, and I think I got to... around level 9/12 or so. Theme Hospital is a fun game. It's a strategy game, so the fun stems from you, and the choices you get to make. You get to design the layout of your hospital and your rooms, hire whoever you want on your staff, place benches and drink machines accordingly, and then watch it all in action from above when you open your hospital. However, it is only when you reach the later stages of the game, do the many frustrations and problems of Theme Hospital become apparent.

I would postulate that Theme Hospital fails in the gameplay section for one main reason: gameplay maintenance. Gameplay maintenance--in strategy games--is when you must maintain everything you have created. In SimTower, this would be individually clicking on every apartment and lowering the rent to make your tenants happy. In Command & Conquer, this would be to repair your buildings or create new tiberium silos. Gameplay maintenance is an understandable feature in strategy games, as long as in comes in doses and is fair to the player. In Theme Hospital however, it is taken to a frustrating extent as you get deeper and deeper into the more complex levels of the game. This can pretty much be summed up by a scenario I was in that kind of went like this:
- The voice announcer lady says: "Doctor needed in psychiatry--2 Surgeons needed in--Doctor needed in GP office--Earthquake imminent!--Doctor required in Slack tongue clinic!--Epidemic warning--2 surgeons needed--nurse required in fracture clinic!"
If you've played the game in the later levels, you will find that this is barely, if at all exaggerating the situation. On top of that, you must keep an eye on:
- The condition of your machinery
- The happiness of your doctors
- The health of your patients
- The length of your queue lines
- The cleanliness of your hospital
- Any notifications on the bottom of your screen

In my opinion, the fun in strategy games does not lie in gameplay maintenance--it lies in the design choices you get to make. I believe that was one main thing Rollercoaster Tycoon tried to achieve, and did it well. It tried to remove many of the micromanagement gameplay features that you see in games like Theme Hospital, and let you concencrate on the fun aspects of strategy games, which in this case was building your park. You didn't have to worry so much about maintaining it.
I think if Theme Hospital focused more on the building aspect and less on the maintaining aspect, it would be a much better game. Several ways they could fix this are:
- Automatically have Doctors who are doing nothing return to the staff room. This removes their anger and keeps them happy, without letting them ask for another tedious raise.
- Have a button to automatically repair all of your machinery, instead of searching your whole hospital for rooms with machines.
- When the queue lines for your rooms get to long, pop up an alert, recommending the player to build another GP Office, or whatever office is required.
- Seriously improve the AI--I would have handymen walking around in circles in vacant areas of the hospital instead of cleaning up messes in the populated areas. I would have the most qualified doctors waiting in empty rooms, while my least qualified doctors would answer job calls when they were the furthest away from the office they were headed to.

Theme Hospital, as it stands, has too much micromanagement, in my opinion. You, as the player, are required to do to many things in a too narrow window of time, and because of that, too many things can go wrong and the game becomes increasingly tedious and frustrating. The only way to win then requires you to do everything right, and nothing wrong.

For an example of what would happen if you removed virtually all of the micromanagement, once again, just look at Rollercoaster Tycoon. All of the rides are equivalent to treatment rooms, except there is no need for employing individual doctors. All staff maintenance is removed by not giving handymen and mechanics 'happiness' bars. Lastly, any ride maintenance is kept to a minimum, and it is barely required to keep your park running. By comparing these two games, you can see what the effects of gameplay maintenance are on strategy games, and which style you may prefer as the player.

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